Tool Kit: Shopping on a Budget
How to eat nutritiously on a budget.
Shopping on a Budget
Living on a budget can be hard, particularly when you are a student-parent. Often times, it is difficult to shop both affordably and nutritiously. Here are some helpful tips to do both successfully:
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a great addition to a well-balanced and healthy diet. Unfortunately, often these food options are cut out of diets due to their expensive nature. However, there are ways to shop creatively so that one can still enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. Shopping for fruits and vegetables that are in season can cut produce costs immensely. Often, displays at the front of a store contain seasonal produce, but here are some general monthly guidelines:
Veggies: Asparagus, Cabbage, Eggplant, Okra, Peas
Fruits: Cherries, Strawberries, Rhubarb, Nectarines
Veggies: Artichokes, Eggplant, Okra
Fruits: Blackberries, Blueberries, Peaches, Raspberries, Nectarines, Strawberries, Rhubarb
Veggies: Peppers, Corn, Eggplant, Summer Squash, Tomatoes
Fruits: Melon, Nectarines, Peaches, Plums, Watermelon
Veggies: Cucumbers, Corn, Eggplant, Okra, Peppers, Tomatoes
Fruits: Asian Pears, Grapes, Rhubarb, Watermelon
Veggies: Cabbage, Cauliflower, Onions, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkins
Fruits: Apples, Pears
Veggies: Broccoli, Cabbage, Onions, Peppers, Pumpkins, Spinach, Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Winter Squash
While December, January and February are often too cold for big crops, it is important to note that many fruits and vegetables can be frozen for months. Through a combination of both frozen and healthy canned produce (see more information below), it is affordable to enjoy both fruits and vegetables.
Look for local farmer’s markets.
Sometimes the reduced cost of food transportation and a bumper crop can result in great deals. Champaign-Urbana has two different farmer’s markets: Urbana’s Market at the Square, and Champaign’s Historic North First Street Market.
Look for seasonal trends on other market items.
Other items in your grocery store have seasonal trends just like produce. For example many grocery stores try to get rid of excess stocks of frozen food in March to make room for the new packaging and stocks that will come in as the growing season begins. This is a great time to stock up on frozen meal options. Additionally, after major holidays such as Easter and Christmas, anything with holiday packaging with be placed on sale shelves or have reduced prices.
Debunking the Myth of Fresh Versus Frozen/Canned Foods
Are canned or frozen foods unhealthy?
There is a resounding belief that canned or frozen food is unhealthy and therefore a bad dietary choice. However, it is important to know that canned/frozen foods can be nearly as good as fresh foods and at half the price! The biggest factor in the amount of nutrients found in canned or frozen foods versus fresh foods is the amount of time that passed between harvesting and processing. The longer food sits around waiting to be canned or frozen, the more the vitamins, minerals, and fiber will disappear from the product. However, this is not a large concern for today’s consumer as most companies today have very short waiting periods before food is processed- potentially shorter than the time it takes your fresh fruit to get from the farm to the store.
What factors influence the nutritional value of canned/frozen goods?
The nutritional value of canned and frozen produce also depends on how it’s packaged and prepared. For example, canned foods with a lot of added sodium, or salt, are much less nutritious than their fresh or frozen counterparts. Food scientists have found that rinsing and draining canned products can reduce excess sodium by 40%. Similarly, canned fruit packed in heavy syrup has much more sugar than fresh or frozen fruit. However, canned fruit packed in its own juice generally has much less added sugar and is nutritionally comparable to fresh fruit.
Does cooking fruits and vegetables make them less healthy?
In regard to other processes and preparation, it is important to know that cooking fruits and vegetables can also affect their nutrient content. To make sure you get the most nutrients out of your fruits and veggies, try lightly steaming them (either on the stove or in the microwave) instead of boiling them in water for long periods of time.
Tips for selecting and storing frozen/canned foods.
To make sure your frozen foods are tasting their best, buy packages that are frozen solid and don’t have ice on the outside of the bag. This can be a sign that the bag has thawed and refrozen. While thawing and refreezing doesn’t affect the nutritional quality of the food, too much refreezing can affect the food’s texture. Canned goods should also be used before their expiration date for best flavor.
Saving Money by Buying Foods in Bulk
Another way to save money if you’re on a budget is to buy items in bulk. For those people with limited storage space, value packs in the freezer section are a good way to cut down on costs and reduce trips to the store while still leaving room in your refrigerator.
Buying items in bulk can make it challenging to come up with different ways to make meals that are variable and healthy. Below we have provided different meal options that center around foods that are cheap and readily available to be purchased in bulk:
- Grilled or Broiled
- Lemon Chicken and Broccoli Pasta
- Chicken Wraps
- Lemon Crusted Tilapia Filets
- Simple Tilapia with Capers
- Broiled or Baked
- Pan-Seared Seasoned Tilapia
- Tilapia Salad
- Healthy Baked Meatballs
- Mushrooms and Meatballs
- BBQ Meatball Sliders
- Rosemary Meatballs:
- Spinach and Meatball Calzones
Another way to utilize bulk items are to creatively prepare meals with leftovers. An easy way to make sure that you are getting the most out of your purchases is to plan a week’s menu around a couple staple food items. Overall, there are a variety of menu ideas that can incorporate any leftovers to form an original meal. Here are a few ideas:
- Chicken pot pie: utilizes the leftover chicken and broccoli very nicely. One would need to purchase pie crusts, any other veggies, and a simple gravy mix.
- Sausage Jambalaya: would use leftover sausage and rice. One can easily purchase a spice packet for this meal and it’s as good as done.
- Chicken soup: which would take the smaller pieces of chicken leftovers and broccoli can easily be included. Add noodles and any other veggies that you prefer.
- Chicken stir fry: would use leftover chicken, rice, and broccoli. Add any other veggies such as carrots or water chestnuts. For a more colorful meal canned fruit can be added too, such as mandarin oranges or pineapple tidbits.
*LeftOverChef is a site where you simply put in the staple foods you would like to include for that week and it gives you menu ideas that can utilize that food. Planning weekly menus out in this manner saves time, wasted food, and money.
Busy Day Eating Preparation Tips
As parents, sometimes it seems as though all you are doing is running around, and there is little time to eat appropriate meals. On these days fast food may become an enticing option. However, even on hectic days with only 20 minutes for a meal, you may be able to skip fast food visits sometimes; you just need to plan ahead a little.
- Eat Breakfast.
Nothing will make you quite so hungry like an empty stomach- so make sure you fill it up in the morning before you even leave. Choose protein rich foods, like a pair of scrambled eggs with some veggies chopped in or greek yogurt with some berries. If you know you’re always short on time in the morning, hard boil some eggs the night before or have the berries washed and ready to be thrown into the yogurt- it’ll make for a quick breakfast-to-go. Avoid bagels and muffins- you’ll crash fast.
- Prep the night before.
If you know you won’t have much time to eat the next day, throw together a brown bag lunch for yourself the night before, or at least a bag of snacks. Bananas, especially slightly underripe ones, are great for keeping you full. Apples are fantastic to munch on. Sandwiches aren’t only for kids; if you go easy on the mayo and throw in some avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, or whatever other veggies your heart desires, you can whip up a delicious ham and turkey sandwich.
- Stay Hydrated.
When you’re running around all day, it’s easy to forget about making sure you drink liquids. But it’s important to stay hydrated in order to properly digest food and keep your body running. Sometimes, you may even trick yourself into thinking you’re hungry when you really just need a drink of water. If you have a busy day ahead, grab a couple of bottles of water or juice with you.
- Leave Yourself a Snack.
When you finally get home, you’ll be exhausted. It’ll be tempting to order out to eat. But if you leave a snack for yourself to come home to, you can re-energize and reprioritize. Have some sliced apples with peanut butter, ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisins), cottage cheese, or carrot sticks with hummus in the fridge waiting. The snack will fill you up and give you new energy after a busy day.
Fast Food Health and Affordability Tips
As ideal as it would be to always eat food made at home, sometimes that’s just not possible. Having a busy life means that occasionally you will need food on the run- and that’s okay, as long as it IS occasional. What’s important is to be aware of how to make the healthiest decisions when stepping up to the counter or pulling up to the drive through window. The problem is, the decision isn’t always so obvious!
- What are some healthy fast food options?
A salad may seem to be a much healthier option than a cheeseburger. However, if you go to McDonald’s and get a Caesar Salad with Crispy Chicken and Caesar dressing to go along with it, you’ve just ordered a 700 calorie, 54 fat gram meal- and you didn’t even order a drink yet! For almost the same caloric value (670 kcal) and half the fat (27 grams) you can get a Bacon Cheeseburger, small fries, and even add in some apple slices with caramel dip for a treat.
Another misconception is that chicken is always healthier than beef, but that’s not true either. A Southwest Crispy Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s is 590 calories and 29 grams of fat, while a Quarter Pounder without cheese is only 430 calories and 20 grams of fat.
- If you have to throw out the classic rules of salads over burgers, chicken over beef, how DO you make smart decisions?
The best way is to plan ahead. Almost all fast food restaurants list nutritional facts online, and some have even started offering “meal builders,” where you can put together a meal online and see what the total nutrition of the meal is. If you have an iPhone, there are several options for apps to download that will tell you nutritional info; Fast Food Calories is one of them (and it’s free to download!)
- What if you didn’t plan ahead?
Some restaurants will have their nutritional facts inside, on a brochure or on a poster. For those that don’t, you’ll need to use your best judgment. Stay away from “crispy” or breaded foods, they will often be deep fried and the breading will soak up the oils. Grilled meats are preferable to fried ones; switching the Southwest Chicken Sandwich from crispy to grilled takes it down 90 calories and 8 grams of fat. Soda is another pitfall; it’s loaded with calories and sugar, and diet sodas have artificial sweeteners that make you crave sugar. If you choose a salad, pick a vinaigrette or olive oil over a creamy dressing. Finally, pick healthful sides. Apple slices with caramel are healthier than fries- and will keep you satisfied for longer.
- Examples of healthy dollar menu meals
Even when on a tight budget, you can still throw together a reasonably healthy meal at a fast food restaurant. Here are some ideas for a possible meals at some popular fast food places, using only dollar menu options.
- McDonalds: McDouble, small iced tea, Fruit n Yogurt Parfait
Fat: 20 grams
Protein: 27 grams Carbs: 98 grams
- Burger King: Whopper Jr. without mayonnaise, Garden salad with Fat free Ranch
Calories: 390Fat: 13.5 gramsProtein: 17 gramsCarbs: 52 grams
- Taco Bell: Fresco Soft Taco, Fresco Bean Burrito
Fat: 15 gramsProtein: 20 gramsCarbs: 77 grams
- Wendy’s: Double Stack, small chili, value size Coca-Cola
Fat: 25 gramsProtein: 41 gramsCarbs: 78 grams
If you’re interested in reading more, check out these articles from David Zinczenko; the first gives some great low-cal options at some fast food joints, the second lists some fast food meals to avoid, and the last article dishes the real numbers in seemingly healthy foods.
- 7 Best Fast-Food Meals Under 350 Calories 
- Worst Fast-Food Meals in America 
- The Worst Healthy Foods In America 
Fast Food Danger zone: The Kid's Meal
Even though it has far fewer options, sometimes picking through the kid’s menus at fast food chains is even harder than the regular menu. A lot of the kids meal items are full of fat and lots and lots of sugar. Additionally, kids meals often have enough calories to satisfy an adult. With the classic combination of a hamburger, fries, and a soda, kids meals can easily be about 600 calories. But the good news is that in recent years, fast food companies have started offering healthier options in the kids meals. Below are some smart meal choices in a few major fast food companies.
At McDonald’s, the best options for your kids will be the hamburger or the 4-piece chicken McNugget meal. Don’t order the fries- even the kids size fries are over 200 calories. Instead, cut down on about 150 calories and add some healthy fruit to your meal by ordering the apple dippers. Finally, the best drink options will be either juice or white milk.
- Burger King
The hamburger or cheeseburger meals are the way to go at BK. Again, choose to get apple dippers rather than french fries. Apple juice, orange juice, and white milk are the smartest drinks to order. The juice will have natural sugars rather than tons of high-fructose corn syrup like a soda would, and the white milk will have 70 calories less than the same amount of chocolate milk.
Similarly to McDonald’s, the 4-piece chicken nugget meal or the hamburger meal will be your best kid’s picks at Wendy’s. Even though they’re now advertised as all natural, skip the fries and get your kids mandarin oranges. To drink, try the light lemonade or white milk.
- Taco Bell
The kid’s menu at Taco Bell isn’t well advertised, and there’s a good reason for it- it should be avoided. Rather than getting your kids a fat-loaded cheese filled tortilla, sugary cinnamon twists, and a sugary soda order them a taco off of the fresco menu. Throw in some salsa verde and water, and you’ve got a decent meal to keep the younger ones satisfied.
Getting Kids to Eat Healthy
An obstacle that parents find is getting their child to eat food that is healthy. Buy large bags of carrots, apples, fruit cups, raisins, etc and have those sitting around and available instead of candy or chips. By early exposure, children are bound to develop a liking for such foods.
Another big part of getting kids to explore certain food options is to make it something they can interact with. For example, providing options where the child is able to make themselves a dish or use their imagination in creating will make healthy options fun. Here are some ideas to try with a child that can make healthy eating fun!
- Ants on a Log: this is a classic for a reason. Celery stalks, peanut butter, and raisins. Let the kids build them on their own and they will enjoy eating it that much more, not even realizing the health benefits.
- Pizza Tortilla Chips: a healthier option to pizza is to make mini pizzas on tortilla chips. This recipe can be altered to anyone’s preference. Just provide healthy options such as shredded cheese, salsa, shredded leftover chicken or sausage, onions, or olives and let the imaginations run wild!
- Homemade Parfait: this can be made also depending upon the kids taste variation. Frozen or dried fruit can be put on top of yogurt. If one wants to get more creative you can supply different types of cereal to put on top (ex: Honey bunches of Oats or Cheerios). Some people like to add honey, others graham crackers… all up to personal preference.
Picky Eater Solutions
We all know that children can be some of the most reluctant “food explorers”. While such pickiness does not immediately result in drastic nutritional problems, modifying these habits as early as possible will give your child a more well-rounded diet and relieve the stress on parents as well!
Here are a few strategies for combating picky eating:
- Don’t push you children too hard. Forcing may just lead to an even greater aversion to the food at hand. Simply suggest they try the food first, even if it be just one bite.
- Praise, Praise, Praise! Positive reinforcement is always a good strategy, again, even if your child takes just one bite
- Set an example. Don’t give them another reason to not want to try the food! That being said, make healthy choices that the whole family may enjoy
- Give non-food alternatives. Sometimes pickiness doesn’t even have to be about the food. Does your child have a favorite plate? A certain way he/she wants their food cut? Humor these little idiosyncrasies. It may be extra work, but if the difference between getting your child to try a healthier food is something as simple as the color of the dish, then it may just be worth it.
Of course, pickiness may just fade with time. With this in mind, as stated before, remember not to overwhelm yourself with getting your child to try certain foods. Perhaps the best strategy is to always give healthy alternatives and variety. Give your children the chance to make their own decisions and discoveries. As long as it’s relatively healthy, you can’t go wrong.
*Information provided by University of Illinois students Elsa Tippy, Laura Klein, Misaki Suehiro, Riley Guillet and Valeriya Botvinik. For more information or resources visit nutritional information for student-parents.